About forty minutes outside of Chicago, in Palatine, Illinois, there is a small studio called Little City Center for the Arts. It is where outsider artist Tarik Echols came to create an incredibly prolific body of work consistently sought by numerous galleries, collectors, and museums. A Swiss collector travels to the area about twice a year to view Echols’ work, often leaving with several works to add to his extensive collection. Beyond collectors, Echols’ work has been acquired by museums in Europe, including London’s The Museum of Everything.
Little City’s roots are actually in cable access television, evolving into an arts center from a popular and award-winning cable show from the 1990s, Kiss My TV Show. During that decade, the center started to offer a range of art programming to local individuals with disabilities. Three artists from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Michael Piazza, Laurie Palmer, and John Ploof, received a grant to work with people with disabilities, and that led them to Little City’s doorstep. They were initially going to spend just six months with the residents, the length of the grant. Rather than offering classes in the usual sense, the artists offered the residents guidance when desired but mostly encouraged them to simply create. Although all three of the artists remained involved in some way, Piazza stayed at the center as a facilitator beyond those six months and until his death in 2006.
Little City’s Administrator and Studio Art Manager, Frank Tumino, describes the underlying philosophy of the space: “I keep emphasizing that [Little City] is a fine art program since so many art programs associated with organizations like Little City are therapy-driven, or craft-driven, or some kind of educational program.” Although learning and therapy are an organic result of the program, it stands apart in that its intent is for the artists to have a space and the supplies to just create art.
“There is always a facilitator in the room, an artist who is here to offer guidance. They aren’t teachers and these aren’t classes, but their role is to make sure that the artists have a path,” Tumino explains. “They try to determine what they are trying to do and they make suggestions about how to achieve that goal.”
Echols is one of the individuals who have come to create art at Little City, and his work has made waves in the Outsider Art world. Collectors and art institutions are drawn to the unbridled power of Outsider Art, and Echols’ work exhibits this energetic rawness. “So much contemporary art is very cerebral and cold, but Tarik’s work is just the opposite.” Tumino took me around the space and showed me many works by Echols, discussing how prolific he is while talking about his process, which is very much akin to stream of consciousness. Repetition of certain words in his work attests to the artist’s zen-like practice. Tumino explains, “His favorite words are ‘open’ and ‘home.’ After that he uses names a lot, names of his family, or the word mom or mommy. His mom’s name is Pat, so that comes up a lot.”
He also uses names of places. “Chicago 240” is very dense, showing the vigor Echols employs in his work. Every inch of the paper is covered with a color wash while “Chicago” is spelled out over and over. The color at its base is all-encompassing, even creating a claustrophobic feel, while the white crayon spelling “Chicago” opens it up, creating a terrain that is as navigable as it is abstract.
“He does these graceful arcs of words and phrases repeating, one on top or below the other, again and again, and you can see how it traces the reach of his arm,” explains Tumino. “Sometimes he’s riffing on a theme, where the words all seem to tie together, if you want to make that connection. Other times, it’s very random and must be things just popping into his head.”
It is really all about the process. “With Tarik, along with many of the artists here, the job of the facilitator is to tell the artist, ‘Stop.’ Since it’s very much about the process, they would go on and on and beyond the point of no return. We try to stop them at a good point.”
Tumino told me about a specific time that clearly illustrated just how much it is about the process, particularly with Echols. Fresh white paper was put over the surface of a table, and Echols drew beyond his own sheet of paper and onto the paper lining the table. “It illustrated so clearly what’s going on and what the purpose is. For Tarik, he doesn’t care about the piece of paper he is working on so much as he cares about the work he is doing,” said Tumino. Echols becomes fixated on the function, not on the outcome.
Echols’ repetition of words and phrases gives his work an emotional dimension. During my visit, Tumino brought out many works by the artist, and the sheer amount of work by Echols is staggering. His technique is inexhaustible, too, as he adds paint washes from time to time, numbers, or alters the shape of the letters. “He will often distort the letters,” Tumino said. “Here, there are big “M’s” and they turn into patterns. He will work on a pristine piece of paper with nothing on it but crayon, his preferred medium.” Tumino and the facilitators have offered Echols other media such as high-quality pastels, but he prefers crayons. The facilitators allow him to make his own artistic choices.
As his work is created with a meditative movement, the resulting pieces channel this feeling onto the viewer. His works manage to be calming while also chaotic. The dichotomy shows the depth of Echols’ mind and its associations, and it shows the world he sees, a place full of stimuli that laces itself into his consciousness and into the work.
“There are times when he does things that are not just letters. He does draw some animals. I found out from his mom that when he was little, his grandfather had a farm and there was this pony that was his size and he used to ride on it. So horses and cows are typical in his work. If he draws something representational, it is usually going to be a farm animal.” In “Missus 135”, the repetition of “missus” alongside depictions of farm animals become the action of the work, as the colors in the background are brought to the foreground with the thick black marker that spells the repeated word and forms the animals.
Collage makes its way into Tarik’s art from time to time as well, like in his piece, “King of Pop”. “That is now in the collection in the Museum of Everything in London. I was sorry to see that one go,” Tumino says. “Tarik loved Michael Jackson. He listened to Thriller every single morning. He was really upset when he died, and he did a portrait that was not of Michael Jackson but of himself with the bucket he would keep his crayons in over his head.” Tumino interpreted this to be Echols showing his grief and a desire to shut himself away. This work has the pop star at its center, emerging from a background with a variety of words like “boys,” “mad,” and the phrase, “king of pop.”
Tumino told me that Echols seems unphased by the attention and the success of his work. For him, it is all about a drive to create using the combination of paper, crayon, watercolor, and occasionally collage for his art. Most of his work spans every inch of the paper and has a kinetic energy. Sometimes, though, he makes sparser work that is airy and calming as fewer repeated words cascade over the surface like a mantra.
Looking at Echols’ work as well as the work by the other artists at the Little City Center for the Arts, I saw how necessary such open and welcoming spaces are to the residents the organization serves. The drive and passion of the artists permeate the studio as artwork fills the space, and the mark of the artists who create those works occupy the space as well. Tumino explains, “Like most Outsider Art, the passion really shows through, that it comes directly from the heart.”